Crash course on car safety

Highway deaths are up. Here’s how you can help bring them down.

Published: August 2013

Photo: Getty Images

After six years of steady declines in motor-vehicle deaths in the U.S., the initial data for 2012 grabbed the attention of many safety advocates when it showed a notable 5 percent spike. That means 1,700 more people died on our roads; the estimated total is 34,080.

What caused the additional deaths isn’t known, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration probably won’t have final 2012 data until early next year. But a number of safety experts note an increase in miles driven due to the easing of the recession and 2012’s exceptionally mild winter and spring.

In retrospect, the uptick in deaths shouldn’t have been surprising. “Economic recessions have suppressed traffic fatalities before, notably in the early ’80s and early ’90s,” Kenneth P. Kolosh, statistics manager for the National Safety Council, said. “Fatality numbers tend to bounce up in recovery periods.”

Still, certain situations account for thousands of traffic fatalities each year. Two-thirds of the fatal crashes in 2011, for example, involved people who were wearing safety belts improperly or not at all, those who were speeding, or those who were driving drunk or distracted. And many were a result of a combination of factors.

Today’s cars are the safest ever. They’re better at protecting occupants in crashes and they have advanced technology that can help us avoid accidents. But lowering the risk often comes down to a driver’s choices. There are plenty of steps you can take to drive more safely and steer clear of dangerous drivers. The result could save thousands of lives and prevent hundreds of thousands of injuries.

Here’s a look at each major factor, the number of deaths related to it in 2011 among all vehicle types, and what can be done to help make the roads safer.

The good news is that only about 15 percent of the driving public still doesn’t buckle up. But they account for more than 50 percent of the vehicle-occupant deaths. In 2011, almost 13,000 people died in traffic accidents in which occupants were unbelted or improperly belted, including in child seats. Many would have died anyway because of the seriousness of the crash, but NHTSA estimates that 3,384 lives would have been saved if everyone had buckled up.

In 2011, belt use was lowest among people age 16 to 24 (79 percent), according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Take our online poll: Tell us which of the measures for cutting highway fatalities discussed in this article you think are most important.

Unbelted occupants

By the numbers:
12,872 annual fatalities

What you can do

Buckle up. Some people think that wearing a safety belt affects only them. But in a crash, an unbelted person can become a projectile that can injure or kill other occupants. Moreover, according to Joe Nolan, vice president of research for the IIHS, air bags could possibly be more effective if they didn’t have to be designed to cope with belted and unbelted people, as is now legally required. A recent IIHS study shows that having to protect unbelted people may come partly at the expense of people who do buckle up.

What else can be done

Expand enforcement laws. Eighteen states still don’t have primary-enforcement laws, which allow the police to cite people solely for not buckling up. In 2012 belt use averaged 90 percent in primary-enforcement states, but 78 percent elsewhere.

Increase high-visibility enforcement. Focused law-enforcement campaigns have had significant success in several states. Often using the slogan, “Click it or ticket,” the programs work best when they’re highly visible and aimed at the type of driver who tends to not buckle up.

Build safeguards into cars. Belt-ignition interlocks that made it impossible to start the car without first buckling up were disastrously unpopular when they were tried in the 1970s. But that’s not the only option. Belt-minders, which remind you to buckle up, have proved to be very successful and could be implemented for all seating positions to improve use rates.


By the numbers:
9,944 annual fatalities

Whether it’s because drivers are exceeding the posted speed limit or driving too fast for the conditions, in 2011 speeding contributed to about 30 percent of all traffic fatalities, NHTSA says.

Many people may not fully realize why excessive speed is dangerous. A speeding car is harder to control, of course, takes much farther to brake, and reduces a driver’s time to react when needed. But then there’s the matter of crash energy. The seriousness of a crash increases exponentially with your speed. A crash at 60 mph generates more than twice the impact energy of a crash at 40 mph. And beyond a certain point, the human body can’t withstand rapid decelerations because the internal organs tear and rupture. Consequently, many high-speed crashes are just not survivable, regardless of seat belts, air bags, or other safety measures.

Going too fast on secondary roads can be especially hazardous. “The problem comes when people drive on a rural, undivided highway as if it were a freeway,” Russ Rader of the IIHS said. “Those secondary roads, with their blind curves, no median, and lots of trees lining them are much trickier than interstates.” In fact, only 12 percent of speed-related fatalities took place on interstate highways in 2011.

What you can do

Give yourself more margin for error. Driving at a moderate speed gives you more time to react to unexpected events and makes it easier to control your vehicle in a sudden maneuver. Also, be sure your tires are properly inflated; underinflated tires affect a car’s handling and can overheat, increasing their potential for failure.

Slow down in wet conditions. Your car’s tires just don’t have the grip they would on dry pavement and can hydroplane, causing you to lose control without warning, especially at faster speeds. And don’t drive on tires that are excessively worn. In our tests, even tires with half-worn tread showed a significant drop in wet grip and were much less resistant to hydroplaning.

What else can be done

Design traffic-calming strategies. Popular in Europe, they involve constructing pedestrian-friendly streets and roads that force cars to slow down. That may include building in speed humps or kinks and narrow places on streets.

Improve enforcement. The use of speed cameras along roads and red-light cameras at intersections has proved to be effective at saving lives. But they’re also controversial, with many people viewing them as a government cash-grab. An intriguing demonstration in Sweden in 2010 was a “speed-camera lottery.” Some of the money from speed-camera fines was handed back as a prize to a random driver who had gone past the cameras without speeding.

Make cars more speed-sensitive. Cruise-control systems can already adjust a car’s speed as you drive. And many GPS devices display the speed limit of the road you’re driving on. A system called Intelligent Speed Adaptation combines those capabilities. It can alert a driver who’s going over the speed limit or even reduce a vehicle’s speed automatically. But what’s needed for this to be effective is more comprehensive speed-limit data in GPS maps.

Drunken driving

By the numbers:
9,878 annual fatalities

Every year about 30 percent of fatalities involve alcohol-impaired driving, according to NHTSA. The 2011 toll of almost 10,000 deaths includes car occupants, motorcycle and bicycle riders, and pedestrians who were involved in crashes or struck by a driver with an illegal blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher. Progress in lowering the percentage of fatalities related to drunken driving proceeded rapidly in the 1980s but then stalled in the mid-’90s. The number of deaths has decreased, but the percentage of alcohol-related crashes remains stuck at about 30 percent. But if all alcohol-impaired drivers, with blood-alcohol concentrations at or above the legal limit, were prevented from driving, the IIHS estimates that 6,800 lives would be saved a year.

What you can do

Think ahead. If you expect to be drinking while away from home, make sure that you can get a ride back with someone who hasn’t been drinking alcohol. Another helpful tip: Keep some extra cash with you to pay a taxi, if necessary, for you or someone else. And keep the cab company’s number handy.

Take responsibility. "Many of us want to say something when we see an obviously intoxicated acquaintance about to drive their car, but we’re afraid we’ll be frowned upon," David Hanson, Ph.D., a professor emeritus of sociology at the State University of New York at Potsdam, said. "Often, though, everyone else in the group is just waiting for someone else to take the lead. So go ahead and speak up. You might be saving someone’s life."

Use a testing device. People metabolize alcohol differently. So if you’re concerned about your blood-alcohol level or another person’s, invest in a personal tester. Look for one that uses a law-enforcement-grade "fuel-cell sensor." They typically start at about $130.

What else can be done

Lower the legal alcohol limit. A National Transportation Safety Board report issued in May 2013 says that by the time someone’s blood alcohol concentration reaches the current legal limit of .08 percent, the risk of a fatal crash has at least doubled. The NTSB recommends lowering the threshold to .05 or less. Almost all of the European Union, which cut alcohol fatalities by more than 50 percent from 2001 to 2010, uses a BAC of .05 as the threshold for drunken driving.

Add more sobriety checkpoints. Those are locations where law-enforcement officers stop cars to check drivers for signs of intoxication. Checkpoints are the best and longest-lasting deterrent when they’re part of a “high-visibility enforcement” campaign and their location is widely advertised ahead of time. Though checkpoints have proved to be effective, cutting alcohol-related fatal crashes by some 9 percent, 10 states ban them for various reasons. So proper safeguards are necessary.

Use ignition interlocks more. Alcohol-ignition interlocks are blood-alcohol-level testing devices that prevent a car from being started unless the driver passes it after exhaling into the device. In many states, people convicted of driving while intoxicated have to use an ignition interlock for some period to be able to drive legally. To encourage that, Congress passed legislation last year that provides grants to states that require it for all drunken-driving offenders. Thirty-three states currently do not.

Alcohol-interlock devices that don’t require breathing into a device are in development. They sample the air around you or take a reading from your skin when you touch a sensor. None is foolproof, but if they could be made reliable, fast-responding, and cost-effective, they could be a real lifesaver.

Distracted driving

By the numbers:
3,331 annual fatalities

Drivers have always faced distractions, but the popularity of texting and the rapid and widespread adoption of smart phones, with their Internet and music-playing capabilities, have made the distraction potential much worse. Automakers keep adding more electronic systems into their vehicles, which we’ve often found to be overly complicated and distracting to use while driving. (Visit our guide to distracted driving.)

According to NHTSA, there were more than 3,000 traffic deaths involving distracted drivers in 2011, and 387,000 people were injured. But many experts think that those figures are underreported. Officers at an accident scene may have little or no evidence about whether a distraction contributed to the crash. And many police departments don’t record the use of cell phones or other causes of distracted driving in their accident reports.

The National Safety Council says that “at least 23 percent of all traffic crashes—or at least 1.3 million crashes—involve cell-phone use per year,” and that “an estimated 1.2 million crashes each year involve drivers using cell phones for conversations and at least 100,000 additional crashes can be related to drivers who are texting.” The council is calling for a total ban on cell-phone use while driving.

Eleven states now ban hand-held cell-phone use by drivers, and 37 ban any phone use, hands-free or otherwise, by novice drivers. Forty-one states ban texting by drivers and six more ban novice drivers from texting. Most have primary-enforcement laws, which mean you can be cited without violating any other laws.

What you can do

Put down the device. Use a hand-held cell phone or other electronic device only when the car is stopped off the road.

Don’t enable. If you know someone is driving, don’t call or text. As a passenger, speak up if a driver picks up a device to use. And set a good example. Texting or using the phone while driving sends your kids a message that it’s OK.

Get an antidistraction app. If you or your teenage driver finds it hard to ignore the phone while driving, the smart-phone app will block most incoming calls and texts. Available free or for a small fee, it will also send your callers an automated message that says you’re driving.

For a rundown of several we’ve looked at, go to

Take action. Learn the rules in your state by going to And if laws aren’t in place, impose your own restrictions. To help pass or strengthen laws, voice your concerns to your legislators.

Buy a car with a good control system. Check our car reviews to find which models have easy-to-use controls and which have complicated, distracting systems. Infotainment systems that we’ve found difficult to use include MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch, and Cadillac’s CUE system. Chrysler’s Uconnect system is more intuitive and user-friendly.

What else can be done

Strengthen laws and enforcement. More states need to pass comprehensive distracted-driving laws that cover the use of hand-held devices as well as the use of any device—hand-held or hands-free—by novice drivers. And they need to back up the laws with effective enforcement. That combination has been shown to reduce the use of texting and hand-held phone use by drivers.

Design easy-to-use controls. As automakers cram more features into their cars, they need to simplify how drivers interact with them. Some systems force drivers to scroll through confusing menus to perform simple functions, which causes them to take their eyes off of the road for too long. Even an easy-to-use system, such as the one in the Tesla Model S, can provide too much functionality while the car is in motion, letting you prowl the Internet practically uninhibited as you cruise at any speed.

NHTSA recently released voluntary guidelines for automakers, but we think they should be mandatory. We also urge NHTSA to release guidelines for aftermarket products and make those mandatory as well.

Improve voice-command systems. We’ve found that voice-recognition systems can be handy for performing many functions, reducing the temptation to pick up a mobile device. But overall, they need to work better so that they don’t become distractions themselves.

Newer SUVs have the lowest fatality rate

The 2014 Subaru Forester is an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick+.

SUVs have come a long way in the last decade. Overall, they handle better, ride more comfortably, and get better fuel economy. And according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, they’re also now among the safest vehicles on the road. In fact, in its analysis of 2011 crash fatalities, the IIHS found that late-model SUVs—one to three years old—have the lowest death rate of any vehicle category.

These newer SUVs accounted for a relatively low 26 occupant deaths per million registered passenger vehicles, which is far better than cars, with an occupant-fatality rate of 62, or pickup trucks, with 72. The differences are even starker when we look just at driver deaths. In that snapshot, the death rate was only 18 per million for SUVs vs. 43 for cars and 54 for pickups.

Rollover deaths are down

Historically, rollover crashes have been the Achilles’ heel of SUVs. And taller vehicles such as SUVs are still more prone to roll over than cars, which are lower to the ground. All vehicle types have improved a lot in this area in the last 10 years, but SUVs have improved the most. Again, looking just at 1-to-3-year-old vehicles, in single-vehicle rollover crashes, the driver death rate per million vehicles for passenger cars dropped from 18 in 2000 to 8 in 2011. With SUVs, driver deaths dropped from 42 to 4.

Many factors have contributed to this turnaround, including improvements in vehicle design and a move to car-based SUVs. But the biggest factor is probably the increased use of electronic stability control, a proven lifesaver. ESC is designed to help prevent a vehicle from skidding or sliding in a turn, and it’s especially valuable in slippery conditions and when swerving to avoid an obstacle. Phased in over the last decade, ESC became mandatory for all 2012 and later models.

Of course, driver demographics play a role in these statistics. SUVs are often driven by middle-aged people, who tend to drive more conservatively than younger people. By contrast, young male drivers, who represent the largest risk group overall, often flock to small cars and compact pickups because of their lower prices. Perhaps understandably, in 2011 fairly new subcompacts had almost twice the driver fatality rate of fairly new midsized cars, according to the IIHS. And the fatality rate of compact pickups lately has been similar. Still, even that death rate was about equal to the average car’s in 2008, so things are improving.

5 ways to steer clear of dangerous drivers

Photo: Getty Images

1. Be ready for the unexpected. Stay alert and drive cautiously. Use your mirrors to stay aware of what’s going on around your vehicle at all times.

2. Give other drivers plenty of space. Don’t drive too close to a vehicle in front or right next to one for an extended time. Leaving room will give you more time to react if something goes wrong.

3. Hone your skills. Consider taking a defensive-driving or car-control course. They help teach you how to control your vehicle in emergency situations, such as when swerving to avoid an obstacle or another vehicle, and how to recover if your car starts going out of control.

4. Avoid driving at the deadliest times. In 2011 more fatal crashes occurred in the early-morning hours of Saturdays and Sundays than at any other time. Not only did fatalities peak at around 1 a.m. and 2 a.m., but most of those accidents involved drunken driving, including a whopping 72 percent of the crashes that occurred around 2 a.m. on Saturdays.

5. Report erratic, dangerous behavior. Pull over and call 911 to alert the police, especially if you can give a good description of the car or a license plate number.

The black-box dilemma

The Event Data Recorder, commonly called the black box, is a promising tool in the battle to reduce highway fatalities. Because it typically records such things as vehicle speed, throttle position, air-bag deployment, brake application, and seat-belt use, an EDR can give accident investigators valuable insight into what was happening during a vehicle crash. This can lead to the development of safer cars.

NHTSA data show that EDRs can be a powerful investigative and research tool, and studies with commercial fleets have shown that they can increase safety by helping to modify driver behavior. In addition, trauma centers say that the data can be invaluable in diagnosing the injuries of accident victims.

Most cars are now equipped with an EDR, but for years the data they recorded and how it was retrieved varied widely from one automaker to another. That problem drew the spotlight in 2010 when Toyota, in a Senate hearing, admitted it had only one laptop in the U.S. that could read its EDR data.

To address the variation among the systems, NHTSA required that as of Sept. 1, 2012, all EDRs in new cars record the same type of data and standardize how it’s retrieved. But because of all the older cars, it will take years before investigators can reap the full benefits.

Another concern is privacy. NHTSA has left the question of who owns or controls the use of that data up to the states. But many consumer advocates worry that the data could be misused. Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, thinks that EDRs should be mandated for use in all vehicles, but that car owners should own the data.

Learn more in "Black Box 101."

This article appeared in the October 2013 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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